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Grown Up in the 1930s - Music

Alongside our exhibition, Grown Up in Britain, we're taking a trip back in time to explore how youth culture was formed across the decades. This week, we're visiting the 1930s, beginning with a look at how popular music evolved from the styles of the 1920s.

A black and white photo of a pair of hands playing a double bass

As the 1920s wore into the 1930s, jazz continued to dominate the music scene, airing on BBC radio programmes and enjoying print coverage in Melody Maker magazine, which had launched in 1926. During this time, fashions steadily shifted away from the rougher, New Orleans style “hot” jazz towards smoother, more highly arranged styles. Swing jazz – characterised by its emphasis on the “off-beat” was in the ascendancy, with the period 1935 to 1946 often referred to as the “Swing Era”.

Band leaders from Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong fronted sprawling jazz "orchestras", and growing access to records and radios helped them make their name internationally as well as across the US. Scat singing, popularised with Armstrong’s “Heebie Jeebies” in 1926, became more widely adopted, with Cab Calloway exemplifying this energetic, improvised vocal style throughout the 1930s.

Elsewhere, Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grapelli were also giving the genre their own spin, introducing audiences to their distinctive “gypsy jazz” fusion with the formation of the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934. 

As talking pictures and movie musicals firmly established their place in popular culture, songs from the cinema became a mainstay with young people. Gone were the days of actors as purely physical performers; now “triple-threats” like Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were shooting to international stardom. And of course, the decade ended with Judy Garland’s iconic performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s enormously influential The Wizard of Oz.

The 1930s also saw huge strides in animation, including the first ever fully animated feature film with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs dazzling viewers in 1937, setting the model for a whole series of animated movies full of catchy songs. Nor was it only features that were reflecting and shaping the musical landscape: music was a key ingredient in the zany cartoons created by Max Fleischer – particularly Betty Boop, who was conceived as a caricature of the jazz age flapper. Betty Boop made her first appearance in 1930, and in 1933, starred in a rather different Snow White adaptation, featuring Cab Calloway as the voice of Koko the Clown in the masterful “St James Infirmary Blues” sequence below. 

Of course, movie musicals had their roots in Broadway, which was still a significant source of popular songs: notably, George Gerschwin’s Porgy and Bess was a colossal hit in 1935, spawning recordings of songs like “Summertime” by various artists of the era and beyond. 

It wasn’t all fun and games, however, and then as now, youth and popular culture was directly and indirectly highlighting some of the great injustices and inequalities of the age. Case in point: Porgy and Bess was met with much criticism for its over-reliance on racial stereotypes, yet its run at Washington’s National Theatre in 1936 included the venue’s first ever performance for an integrated audience, thanks to members of the cast protesting against segregation.  

The mixed reception of Porgy and Bess is just one example of how the history of race relations exists in a tangled relationship with the history of popular music and culture. While jazz had clear roots in African-American culture and was largely developed and dominated by Black musicians, it was far from unusual for white stars to enjoy greater success and a much more comfortable ride to the top, with artists like Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman becoming known as the “King of Jazz” and the “King of Swing” respectively. This was perhaps even more exaggerated in the UK, where jazz had first been introduced by the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band when they visited London in 1919. 

The 1930s did see this begin to change, as more established Black American artists began travelling to Britain, although the determination of the Musicians’ Union to clamp down on overseas performers – who were perceived as a threat to the livelihoods of homegrown talent – often made it hard for them to secure gigs in respectable venues, and relegated to night clubs with more informal agreements. 

There could also be something of a disconnect between people’s attitudes towards the music they enjoyed and the people who created it. British jazz historian Val Wilmer writes that, “it was a selling point in this period, for all kinds of venues to have a black band… but they were there for what white people wanted from them, and they were still otherwise pretty marginal in the entertainment world.” 

Nevertheless, jazz did provide a route for upward social mobility, a chance of wealth and success in a society that would otherwise leave minorities marginalised. Harriet Aldritch writes that, “In many ways, jazz helped race relations substantially, with its diversity of backgrounds fostering integration in an era when segregation was the norm… White musicians were sometimes invited to play in black bands, and within band hierarchies, black musicians could be considered superior to their white counterparts.”

Without a doubt, the most shockingly direct musical acknowledgement of racism at this time came in the form of Billie Holiday’s haunting 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit”, a vivid, nightmarish description of American lynchings, which continued through into the Civil Rights era.

Race wasn’t the only arena where popular songs were becoming a site of protest and politics, either. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Great Depression began to bite on both sides of the Atlantic, compounding the economic problems created by the First World War. During the 1930s, the value of British exports halved, industrial areas were plunged into poverty, and unemployment figures more than doubled. In response, public spending was cut and taxes raised, leading to further unemployment and depression. Little wonder that this misery made its way into music, with Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s 1932 “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” eventually coming to be seen as a kind of Depression-era anthem. 

Things did gradually recover, though certain areas of the country remained harder hit than others, but at the end of the decade, disaster struck again: in September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany in response to its invasion of Poland, just 21 years after the end of the previous conflict. Inevitably, a resurgence in war songs followed, with one of the most famous of all – Vera Lynn’s melancholic “We’ll Meet Again” written that same year. 

Take a listen to our Spotify playlist below to hear a handful of the era’s biggest and most influential hits.